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The thriving settlement of Oracle boasted massive food stores, strong defensive walls, and a busy nursery. Of course, the biggest draw to the young city was the Oracle Temple itself. Following the defeat of the Theia entity and despite their hostile past, the Reclaimers and the St. Louis refugees gradually blended together to form a new, stronger community in the old area of Fort Meade with the Theia facility at its center. As respected leaders in the two different groups, Jason and Beth’s relationship had bonded the people together like a royal marriage between two rival kingdoms. Of course, these groups only represented the original base population of the new settlement. Thousands of people had poured into the quickly burgeoning city over the past twelve months as news of the miraculous Oracle Temple began to spread.

The old Theia facility had offhandedly been nicknamed the Temple and, much to Jason’s displeasure, the name had stuck. Jason always suspected that Mike Hagen had been the driving force behind the new name, but could never quite prove it. Over the course of the year, greater than one hundred family members had been reunited directly through the use of the Temple and that number grew almost daily. But, as more people made the pilgrimage to Oracle, it was becoming far more common for loved ones to find each other simply by the fact of them both being in the city at the same time. This phenomenon became so common that it was dubbed the “Oracle Blessing,” and only served to attract even more people to the city’s welcoming borders.

The Reclaimer Council had reformed into the more inclusive Oracle Provisional Congress. While free elections had not yet taken place, there was a serious plan to implement a more republican form of government as soon as it was practical. Not everyone was in such a hurry to freely hand over power of the most important machine on the planet, however, and political intrigues had been one of the first bad habits of the old society to be picked up by the new.

When the Theia entity died, the implanted drones that she still controlled became empty vessels, incapable of movement or interaction of any kind. Since the horrific implant made their condition irreversible, they were humanely put down by the thousands in a grisly, but necessary project that took months.

The Regulators had evolved into a police force to maintain order in the wildly expanding city. With population estimates closing in on forty thousand, Oracle was experiencing the same domestic crime problems as any of the large cities of the past. When Beth Rawlings joined the Provisional Congress, Jonas Mulligan assumed the new office of Oracle’s Sherriff. Despite losing an arm in the Kirwin complex assault, Mulligan still projected an intimidating law enforcement presence and somehow managed to keep the peace between the various feuding immigrant groups within the city.

Feeding such a large population center had proven to be the biggest obstacle to Oracle’s growth, but fortunately, the city had something to trade that no one else could provide: information. Within a few months, in addition to the city’s own successful outlying farms, new trade routes had been established with other growing communities. Before long, Oracle had found itself at the center of a vast, expanding trade empire, which was greatly bolstered by the city’s extensive municipal use of their eight captured hover towers. To keep this massive fleet air born, the first industry to be nurtured within Oracle had been the manufacturing of the precious compressed hydrogen fuel. By year’s end, this fuel was being used to not only supply the fleet but also the city’s new power stations, which utilized the converted engines of destroyed hover towers to produce energy for the very power hungry city.

The many outgrowns of the city had started to show marked mental growth over the last year, which implied that there was indeed hope that they could eventually mentally mature into their adult bodies, at least to some degree. This was very good news for the many reproductive programs that the Congress had sanctioned. Over some moral objections, the outgrowns had been included in the new laws making pregnancy mandatory for all woman, unless some overriding medical condition prevented it. The new reproductive laws were controversial to say the least, but given the alternative of species extinction, the Provisional Congress felt they had little choice. Of course, most woman were already well past any hope of successfully carrying a baby to term, and that is why the outgrowns had become so important to humanity’s survival. With successful births for all ten of the pregnant Clarksburg outgrowns, it had been proven that, despite their immature minds, the much younger bodies of the outgrowns were a superior gestation vessel for healthy babies. Thus, all outgrowns were included in the impregnation efforts albeit only through artificial means.

The men of Oracle were certainly not exempt from the new reproductive laws, far from it. Besides the requirement of all healthy men to supply monthly donations to the newly powered sperm banks, the law required that any able man, not currently caring for a child, which included outgrowns, register with a form of selective service. Essentially, a draft was conducted at each birth to assign a “father” to every child that did not already have one claiming it. This man would then be legally responsible for the child, until their twelfth birthday at which point the child themselves would begin to fall under the adult provisions of the reproductive laws. Humanity was on the brink of extinction and no longer had the luxury of any antiquated reproductive morality. Any successful human birth was a cause for great celebration and anything impeding those births was closely scrutinized to discover if it truly was a benefit to humanity’s continued existence or should be eliminated altogether.

Jason Rawlings wanted nothing more than to be back at Beth’s side, but the city’s business had once again pulled him away. Charles had assured him that he had plenty of time, but he still tried to move the work along as quickly as possible. Since he had been unavailable for several days, this particular meeting had stretched into a six-hour long marathon. In the final two hours, he had suggested they move the engagement outdoors and stretch their legs with a short walk while they completed their discussions.

As they strolled down the bustling main thoroughfare, his talk with Oracle’s new Civil Administrator, Tammy Jenkins, was continually interrupted by reverent admirers wishing to talk to, or even touch the legendary prophet. He had known better than to try to have this meeting outdoors, but he had needed to move around to help his ailing circulation after the long meeting. The stroll had worked out well for Tammy however, as she had wanted to walk Gerald Farmer’s beloved ancient horse Adelene, who was still miraculously alive and becoming a bit of an Oracle legend herself. Tammy treated the decrepit animal more like a family pet than the work animal that it was supposed to be. She had always felt that she owed it to the old Freeman who had sacrificed so much, especially since Jason was never able to locate his lost daughter.

They continued to discuss much of the boring day to day business that was required to keep a thriving city like Oracle going. Food shipments, fuel production projections, waste management and water treatment were just some of the exhilarating topics that required their attention. As the meeting began to wind down, Jason steered them back toward the infirmary.

“That should do it, Jason. I think we’ve got all the approvals that we needed from you,” confirmed Tammy.

“Thank God,” said Jason gratefully.

“Nervous? Word is that it could happen anytime.”

Jason forced a smile. The truth was that he was scared to death, “A bit, yeah.”

“Don’t worry too much,” she said comfortingly. “They can be a handful, but I wouldn’t trade my little Travis for anything in the world.”

Several months ago, the Temple had successfully located Tammy’s missing, young son Travis and retrieved him from a small group near old Austin, Texas. The six-foot two-inch boy was hardly “little” but he was healthy considering the terrible hardships that he had endured. The outgrown child was showing great progress with his mental development since his reunion with the mother and Tammy still had very high hopes for his future. Unfortunately, the attempt at using Travis’ DNA to find Tammy’s husband had failed several times. The only conclusion was that her husband had perished at some point in the past, like much of the human population.

Rounding a corner, Tad Lawson came running up to the pair at full throttle. At first Jason thought the boy was going to run right through them, but he skidded to a stop at the last second.

“Sir!” he panted. “You’ve got to come quick! Doc Patel sent me to find you. You weren’t at the congressional offices, so I’ve been looking all over.”

Jason asked no questions of the messenger, but instead took off running toward the infirmary as fast as his painful knees would allow. He burst into the newly constructed building and was immediately met by his friend, Doctor Charles Patel, wearing an expression that was too grim to bare good news.

“What happened?” demanded Jason.

“Beth went into labor earlier than we had expected.”

“Where is she? Let me see her,” Jason insisted.

“Jason, you have a beautiful, heathy baby girl.”

“Where is Beth? What’s wrong Charles?”, Jason insisted, ignoring the doctor’s announcement.

Charles’ face again took on a solemn expression. “We can’t stop the bleeding, Jason. I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time.”

“Where?” Jason demanded again.

Charles cocked his head behind him, “Back there. The nurse will show you. I’m so sorry.”

Jason followed the nurse and watched as she pulled back a privacy curtain to reveal his lovely wife breast feeding his tiny, newly-born daughter. The ghostly pale Beth looked up and gave Jason a weak smile.

“Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Absolutely,” agreed Jason as he sat down on the corner of the bed. “But you should be resting.”

“I wanted to try and feed her at least once, but I think she’s done.”

She motioned for the nurse and the woman gently scooped up the content child, swaddled it in a thick blanket and then tenderly transferred her into Jason’s arms, instructing him on the proper holding technique as she did so. The nurse then quietly excused herself, closing the curtain behind her.

Jason was speechless as he held his child for the first time and consumed every detail of her tiny face.

“I always told you we shouldn’t wait, that I wasn’t getting any younger,” Beth said softly with a mirthful smile. Even this close to death, she was still trying to make him laugh.

“You were only twenty-four,” he responded playfully.

“Time flies,” she said, slurring her speech slightly as she feebly squeezed Jason’s free hand. Her skin was cold and damp and her eyes were heavy and drooping. Jason then ominously felt all tension in her grip slacken.

“Beth?” he asked quietly.

“Beth!” he yelled in panic when he got no response. “Doctor!”

That evening, as Jason tried in vain to comfort his crying child, his emotions were a jumbled mess. He felt wondrous joy at the birth of daughter, Megan Elizabeth Rawlings, and at the same time, crippling sorrow at the loss of his beloved wife for whom he had fought so hard to find. He reflected silently on everyone and everything that he had lost and the many things that they, as a community, had struggled to rebuild over the last year and a half.

As Megan finally drifted into a deep slumber, he managed to take comfort in his daughter’s current contentment. He wondered what the future had in store for his child and prayed that she would never have to experience the sacrifices that had been required of his generation. Unfortunately, he knew all too well the dangers that lurked around every corner of the universe, but for now, at least, his daughter was safe, cradled in his arms.

The being known as Paradon, had almost missed the weak cry for help that had been carried over the Chorus. He had only noticed it because of the minor disruption in the harmony that it had caused. After isolating the faint transmission, he quickly realized that it had been a child in distress right before its forced abortion. This thought was most unsettling for a being of Paradon’s power. Never in his kind’s history had a child that had been mature enough to access the Chorus been aborted. The tragic event demanded an investigation, for any species that had become powerful enough to threaten one of their kind, could not be allowed to exist further. For eons, Paradon’s race had continually culled other species from the universe to ensure that none ever rose to challenge their domination of the cosmos. For this was their domain and they guarded it jealously.

The moon-sized body of Paradon slowly adjusted its course toward the coordinates of the failed gestation. Fortunately, the system was not far from his current location. He began his slow acceleration and calculated his estimated time to arrive in the target system and was pleased at the short duration of the trip. Paradon’s kind measured time in intervals so vast that the entire span of human history could easily fit inside one. So, for Paradon, one thousand years did not even register as an inconvenience. He would soon discover the cause of this horrible tragedy and remedy the situation permanently.


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